In novel The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes, fictional French artist Edouard Lefevre paints a haunting portrait of his wife, Sophie, before he leaves to join his regiment at the outbreak of World War I. Sophie returns home to her family's hotel in the village of St. Peronne, where she hangs the painting on the wall. But the war is not over as quickly as the couple hopes, and St. Peronne is occupied by German soldiers. They requisition the hotel and force Sophie and her sister to cook for their officers.
Moyes describes the villagers'suffering under harsh German rule and Sophie's increasing anxiety at being separated from her husband. When a German Kommandant expresses sympathy toward Sophie and her plight (and possibly lust for Sophie herself), it opens up complicated questions about intimidation, coercion, and what constitutes collaboration.
Moyes is the author of seven previous novels and worked for several years as a journalist at a major U.K. newspaper. Her previous novel, Me Before You, was a bestseller in the U.S. and in Britain. She'll appear at the grand reopening of Madison's Central Library on Saturday, Sept. 21. Moyes will attend a reception at 6 p.m., then read from The Girl You Left Behind at 7 p.m. Registration is required for the reading.
Halfway through The Girl You Left Behind, Moyes suspends Sophie's story on a cliffhanger and begins anew with Liv Halston, a young widow in present-day London. Liv's late husband, David, gave her a painting as a wedding present -- and of course this is Sophie's portrait, now called The Girl You Left Behind. How did David acquire this painting? Where was it for 90 years? And the biggest question of all: Who really owns it? The descendants of Edouard Lefevre have located it and are suing Liv for its return under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which prohibits the looting of civilian property during wartime.
It turns out Lefevre's paintings are now very collectible. Do the heirs want it because it represents their cultural heritage or so they can sell it for a nice tidy sum? Liv cannot bring herself to relinquish the painting, and a legal battle ensues.
Moyes deftly handles the complex moral issues by refraining from sweeping generalizations and keeping the focus on Sophie and Liv. Neither woman acts entirely without self-interest, and both make questionable decisions under pressure. Yet both are extremely likable. Moyes throws in a nice (though occasionally contrived) romance for Liv and wraps up Sophie's story through family papers and documents that emerge during the court trial.
I spent a little time on Jojo Moyes' blog in preparation for writing this review. In a post about books she's read recently, she wrote enthusiastically about a novel's "utter pageturniness." I loved that made-up word and think it perfectly describes The Girl You Left Behind. The novel offers an absorbing mix of history, suspense and moral ambiguity, and brings up issues that are at the same time personal and global.